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Between Electoral Politics and Global Jihad: Libya's Islamist Groups Consider New Options

Publisher Jamestown Foundation
Publication Date 26 July 2012
Citation / Document Symbol Terrorism Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 15
Cite as Jamestown Foundation, Between Electoral Politics and Global Jihad: Libya's Islamist Groups Consider New Options, 26 July 2012, Terrorism Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 15, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
Comments Dario Cristiani
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The performance of the Islamist parties was particularly poor in the recent Libyan elections. The National Forces Alliance (NFA), led by former interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, won the elections, securing 39 out of the 80 seats open for candidates representing political parties. The Hizb al-Adala wa'l-Bina (HAB - Justice and Development Party), launched by Libya's Muslim Brotherhood, came in second with 17 seats. The Islamist al-Watan Party, led by ex-jihadist and former rebel commander Abd al-Hakim Belhadj, won no seats at all (al-Jazeera, July 18; The Press Association, July 18). These results do not say much about the future political orientation of the Libyan parliament, as that will depend largely on the profiles of the 120 independent candidates provided for by the new Libyan electoral law.

One of the causes of the Islamists' electoral difficulties was the fragmentation of the Islamist camp (al Jazeera, July 18). While many Islamist players decided to run for election within the legal guidelines, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Watan, some others – above all in eastern Libya – remain in the grey area between political activism and militant action. Most notably, a new group has emerged in eastern Libya over the past few months, called "the Sheikh Omar Abd al-Rahman Brigade" (named for the Egyptian Sheikh imprisoned in the United States for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing). The movement's focus on global jihad against "the far enemy" is similar to that of many other jihadist groups, but is somewhat of a novelty in Libya, where jihadists have adopted a more national focus. 

Post-Gaddafi Developments

Islamist groups in Libya supported the revolution from its beginning. The allegedly good relations built by some Islamist leaders with the former regime in the last phase of its existence did not prevent them from joining the revolution. After decades of clashes, relations with the regime had improved mainly as a result of the policy of reintegrating fighters of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) promoted by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. The son of the former Libyan leader insisted that the LIFG had to stop pursuing armed rebellion in Libya and turn the focus of their jihad from the West to Palestine, the only place such activity was acceptable ( [Tunis], March 25, 2010). However, Mu'ammar Gaddafi's ruthless repression of the early revolts in Benghazi pushed the members of these groups to embrace the cause of the revolution and reject the late call by the regime to act as mediator with local revolutionary groups. This decision pushed Islamist players to act more pragmatically as they accepted Western and NATO support to overthrow Gaddafi.

Ex LIFG fighters were soon numbered amongst the most important players in the revolution. These fighters, above all those who had gained previous experience in other war theaters such as Afghanistan, the Balkans, the northern Caucasus and Iraq, were particularly efficient and effective in carrying out military operations. Their capabilities stood in contrast to the widespread lack of military and operational experience of other Libyan revolutionaries, who were often simple civilians who had joined a brigade. Indeed, Belhadj and his fellow militiamen led the successful assault on Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziyah compound in August 2011, signaling the de-facto end of the regime.

However, during and after the revolution, the Libyan Islamist camp was anything but truly united and cohesive. Similar to the wider, national dynamic of forced unity against the common Gaddafi threat, several Islamist groups made a strategic decision to overcome their differences, joining the wider consensus of the revolutionary front.

An al-Qaeda Connection?

During the early stages of the revolution, a group named the "Islamic Emirate of Barqah" emerged.  Barqah is the ancient Arabic name for the region of Cyrenaica (eastern Libya). Gaddafi's forces claimed that al-Qaeda members had established an Islamic emirate in Dernah, a well-known traditional and conservative city in northeastern Libya. Led by Abdelkarim al-Hasadi, the emirate was allegedly responsible for the kidnapping of civilians and members of security forces in the town of al-Baida (al-Arabiya, February 23, 2011; AFP, February 20, 2011). However, the existence of this group seemed to be an attempt by Gaddafi's regime to blame al-Qaeda-related forces for launching the revolution and to use these developments as a tool to apply pressure against Western countries. 

While it is true that there were several Islamist cells active in the east of Libya during the revolution, their links with al-Qaeda central are questionable. In the history of Libyan jihadism there are two clear patterns of development: one characterized by a global orientation and symbolized by Abu Yahya al-Libi, and a more nationally-oriented struggle, whose major figure was Belhadj. Although Belhadj and several other ex-LIFG fighters had a past of international jihadist involvement, they were generally more focused on fighting against the internal enemy and fled Libya only when the situation proved to be unsustainable for them. However, their presence among the revolutionary ranks could not be considered proof that al-Qaeda was part of the revolution.

In the west of the country, Belhadj and his group represented the most important Islamist players. In the east, the most important Islamist group was the February 17 Brigade, based in Benghazi and with ties to former LIFG members as well as members of Libya's Harakat al-Shuhada'a al-Islamiyah (Islamic Martyrs Movement). The leader of the February 17 Brigade was Imam Ismail al-Sallabi, described on the forum of the Muslim Brotherhood as the younger brother of Ali Muhammad al-Sallabi, a Libyan Muslim cleric and religious scholar with extensive relations in the Gulf peninsula. Ali Muhammad was also one of the major counterparts of Saif al-Islam in the program of reintegration of Islamist fighters in Libya (Reuters, September 20, 2011;, September 9, 2011). Following the death of Gaddafi and the end of the revolution, many of these Islamist players decided to turn to politics, while some other small groups, mainly in eastern Libya, remain without a clear political agenda, divided between militancy and political activism. 

A major development in the evolution of the jihad movement in Libya occurred when the Sheikh Omar Abd al-Rahman Brigade claimed responsibility for the rocket attacks on the Benghazi headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in late May (Libya Herald, June 3). A few days later, the group also claimed responsibility for the attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, claiming that it was a response to the killing by a U.S. drone of Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaeda's number two and probably the most notable intellectual and ideological figure of the global movement (AFP, June 11). [1] The features of this group closely resemble those of other jihadist movements and are of particular interest for the future configuration of the Islamist and jihadist camp in Libya.

Three Possible Directions for Libya's Islamists: National, Regional, Global

The Muslim Brotherhood and the former leadership of the LIFG have decided to place themselves within the legal and formal political landscape, accepting the rule of the democratic game and running in the election. Similar to what has happened in Tunisia following the overthrow of Ben Ali and the Ennahada "centrist normalization," with the emergence of several more radical Islamist and Salafist players who want to exploit the availability of this new political space on the right side of Ennahada, in Libya the participation of Islamist groups in the normal representative political game has opened up space for other, more radical Islamist players. These new opportunities can be exploited in several, different ways:

  • First of all, there is the national option, the possibility for Islamist players outside the limits of normal parliamentary politics to use political Islam as a narrative of discontent and revolution within the national political environment. For instance, this narrative may merge with the rising separatist sentiment in eastern Libya, especially if the feeling of marginalization in these areas of the country should increase. 
  • The regional option is the possibility for Libyan radical Islamist players to get involved more deeply in the current jihadist dynamics characterizing the Maghrebi-Sahelian space. Indeed, the enormous availability of weapons and the lucrative illegal trafficking in contraband associated with this area make this option strategically interesting, although relations between the Libyan jihadists and other regional jihadists are not that strong. For instance, the Libyan presence in the ranks of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is generally considered to be insignificant, not more than 50 men. More likely, there could be occasional interaction between some Libyan militants and members of the different jihadist movements now operating in the Sahelian space, such as the already mentioned AQIM, Ansar al-Din and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). These relationships will more likely be based on common logistic and business interests rather than on a unified jihadist vision with common enemies, targets and strategies. While the Islamist movements have presented a united front in public, there are rumors of emerging differences between the militant groups based on divergent strategic aims. Therefore, collaboration is possible but is unlikely to be structural. 
  • Finally, there is the global option. In some ways, the Sheikh Omar Abd al-Rahman Brigades already operate within these conceptual boundaries. The reference in the movement's name to a major international jihadist leader, the specific choice of the operational targets – the Red Cross and the U.S. consulate – and the declared rationale of these attacks – respectively the accusation that the Red Cross was engaged in Christian proselytization and revenge for the killing of al-Libi – put this group more directly in the wake of the wider global al-Qaeda movement (Libya Herald, June 3; Tripoli Post, June 12). Al-Qaeda considered as a whole is facing a period of transition following the death of its founder and leader Osama bin Laden. However, its borderless and comprehensive concept of jihad where the fight against the far enemy– the U.S. and the impious Western countries in general – is more important than one against the near/national enemies seems to characterize this form of Libyan jihadism. In a way, this new focus on global jihad could represent a novelty in the Islamist jihad field in Libya as Libyan jihadists were generally focused specifically on national struggle against the near enemy rather than on the global struggle against the far enemy.


It is likely that it will not be possible to draw clear conceptual and operational boundaries between these three options and there may thus be a type of dynamic interaction between these options rather than a unitary trajectory for Libya's radical Islamists. However, it is worth noting that a new group in the east, the Shaykh Omar Abd al-Rahman Brigade, is acting according to more general al-Qaeda precepts, primarily attacking targets associated with the far enemy and finding motivation in issues not strictly associated with the ongoing political situation in Libya. For Libya's radical Islamist fighters, turning to the national option is a realistic and likely option, especially if eastern Libya continues to have little political weight in the national political balance. However, the emergence of the global option will be of particular interest and needs to be monitored closely, particularly if security stabilization in Libya should fail or proceed much slower than expected.

To read more about the militants who contested in the Libyan elections, refer to the recent Quarterly Special Report: Elections Issue: Militants in Libyan Politics: A Militant Leadership Monitor Report *Click Here to Order a Copy of This Report Online!*

Dario Cristiani is a PhD candidate in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King's College London. Previously, he has been a teaching fellow in Political Science and Comparative Politics at the University of Naples "L'Orientale" and a political analyst with the Power and Internet News Report (PINR).


1. See Michael W.S. Ryan, "The Death of Abu Yahya al-Libi and its Impact on al-Qaeda Strategy, Priorities and Goals, Jamestown Foundation Hot Issue, June 15, 2012,

Copyright notice: © 2010 The Jamestown Foundation

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